Borden Parker Bowne

From New World Encyclopedia

Borden Parker Bowne (1847-1910) was an American Christian philosopher and theologian in the Methodist tradition. In 1876 he became a professor of philosophy at Boston University for more than 30 years. He later served as dean of the graduate school. Bowne was an acute critic of positivism, materialism, and all forms of reductionism and naturalism. He categorized his views as Kantianized Berkeleyanism, transcendental empiricism and, finally, Personalism, of which Bowne is the dominant figure.

Bowne identified the essence of a human being with the "person" which is the spiritual reality, irreducible to any other natural components, within a Christian theistic context. Bowne and his students at Boston University, such as Albert Knudson, Ralph Flewelling, and Edgar Sheffield, developed a philosophical movement called personalism. They contributed to the development of theistic philosophy amidst materialistic or naturalistic tendencies of thoughts and cultures found in the twentieth century.


Borden Parker Bowne was born on January 14, 1847, near Leonardville, New Jersey, and died in Boston on April 1, 1910. He was one of six children of upright parents raised in rural New Jersey, near what is today called Atlantic Highlands. Notably, the father, Joseph Bowne was a Justice of the Peace, a farmer, a Methodist preacher and a vocal abolitionist at a time when such a stance was controversial. The mother was of a Quaker family and also an abolitionist. As a youth Bowne was able to observe the example of parents who were unbending on points of moral significance, and particularly regarding the dignity of all persons. Later Bowne was instrumental in supporting integration in higher education, and he presided over the dissertation of the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from a U.S. University, John Wesley Edward Bowen (1855-1933), in 1891. In demeanor and bearing Bowne was very formal even with his own family members, business-like and orderly. He followed the manner of personal discipline from which the Methodists originally took their name.

Bowne entered New York University in 1867 amidst the swirling new controversy of Darwin’s evolutionary theory. Simultaneously in 1867 he was examined and licensed to preach in the Methodist Church. He worked his way through college employed at his uncle’s grocery in Brooklyn while preaching and pastoring part-time. He studied the standard curriculum and graduated with the Bachelor of Arts in 1871. Bowne’s formal ordination as a Methodist deacon followed in 1872 and he was assigned a congregation in rural Long Island at Whitestone. In 1873 the opportunity came to continue his studies in Europe. He studied mainly at Paris, Halle, and Göttingen, being most deeply influenced at the last of these by the empirical strain of Kantian philosophy prevailing in that age under Rudolf Hermann Lotze (1817-1881). Bowne worked as a journalist in New York City from 1874 until 1876 when he completed the Master of Arts at New York University. He accepted a call to the philosophy department at Boston University in 1877, refusing in turn attractive offers from Yale and the new University of Chicago as his reputation grew. In 1888 Bowne became the first Dean of the Graduate School at Boston University and held that position until his death.

Philosophy: overview

Bowne’s most lasting contributions came in the philosophy of religion. His religious background is important in this regard. Bowne was a popular guest preacher throughout his career and a volume of his sermons was published posthumously under the title The Essence of Religion (1910). His constant stream of contributions to popular religious magazines and newspapers made him one of the foremost theological opinion leaders of his time. These voluminous popular writings were applications of his technical philosophical positions to the social and religious issues of the day. These writings bespeak an unusual mixture of progressive ideas, the guiding spirit of which is a devotion to clarity of thought and practicality of viewpoint. It will be worthwhile to make note of two theological and biographical points before moving to a summary of Bowne’s formal philosophy.

Bowne was able to negotiate a kind of theistic naturalism that enabled him to avoid much of the controversy over evolution theory during his career. His basic position was that there was no naturalistic or theological basis for treating nature, its changes, developments, and laws, as something against God. The idea that a scientific description of nature could contradict the basic principles of theism betrayed a misunderstanding of both nature and theism. Thus, the reductive evolutionist misunderstands nature by assuming that the result of a process ought to be understood through its beginnings or origins, when in fact it is only from the practical survey of the results that the origins can be empirically approached or deduced.

This same limiting principle applies to all human understanding and knowledge regardless of whether the question before us is natural, cultural or historical. In addition, whatever principles and trends may have prevailed regarding an origin, they are undeveloped in their original state and therefore not to be valued except as seen through a later accomplishment, i.e., their having produced a valuable result.

There might be any number of trends and happenings in natural or human history that were dead-ends and no one is scandalized by their lack of issue, so why should any theist be scandalized where the issue of natural or historical processes is so immensely and obviously valuable as in the case of evolution? On the other side, the defenders of “special creation” err in assuming that God is something supernatural, something wholly apart from nature.

Bowne points out that unless God is conceived as working immanently within each moment of experience, be it natural or human, the sustaining continuity of natural or human experience is wholly without an explanation. Thus, every event is a special creation in the sense that the complete explanation for its existence cannot be given by science, history, theology, or any other device of human understanding. Scientific explanations are incomplete, just as theological explanations are incomplete.

One result of this view is that there is no reason to defend the idea of miracles in the traditional sense of the word, since a serviceable conception of the immanent activity of God in nature renders such traditional tales more suitable for children than persons of mature faith, according to Bowne. This latter view, in which Bowne denies the traditional view of miracles and argues against the blood atonement, and by implication the resurrection, led him into troubles with the conservative constituency of his church, and also led William James to remark to Bowne in a letter that he (James) was “a better Methodist than you, in spite of your efforts to persuade me to the contrary. If the ass and the blatherskite succeed in their efforts to weed you out of the body [of the church], I hope they will have the wisdom to get me voted in to fill the vacuum.” (December 29, 1903). Bowne’s standard answer to such charges was to remind his accusers that there was a difference between matters of knowledge in which human methods could expect some success, however limited, and in matters of faith which take up where investigation will avail nothing.

Heresy Trial and "Liberal Protestant Consensus"

James’ remark about “weeding out” Bowne was a reference to the controversy brewing in 1903 that resulted in Bowne’s heresy trial in the spring of 1904—the only heresy trial in the history of the Methodist church. In addition to the issues described above, Bowne had defended the teaching of the controversial higher criticism of the Bible at Boston University, where a religion professor had been dismissed for teaching this approach. Having had the example of his own parents, Bowne was unintimidated by those who pointed fingers and threw epithets his way. He calmly defended himself and was acquitted of all charges, unanimously, by a council of Methodist bishops (some of whom were his former students). In many ways this episode served to bring Methodist theology into an influential role in the forging of what has since been called the “liberal Protestant consensus,” with other mainline denominations, which was so influential in the twentieth century philosophical theology and social ethics. The Bowne heresy trial was one of many turning points in the creation of that important perspective.

Among important philosophical associations in Bowne’s environment, William James was perhaps the most notable. Bowne was part of a group that met every two weeks for some years in the rooms of Thomas Davidson in Boston. The group included not only Davidson and James, but George Holmes Howison (until his permanent departure from Boston in 1882), J.E. Cabot, W.T. Harris, and C.C. Everett. A close examination of the philosophies of those who were part of this group suggests that this pleasant fortnightly meeting might have been the birthplace of pluralistic philosophy in America, in the rich exchanges particularly among Howison, James and Bowne.


Bowne’s method was a descriptive (as opposed to prescriptive or formalist or logical) version of Kantian philosophy, similar to Lotze’s, but with a greater emphasis upon the empirical roots of our descriptions. In describing experience we are enjoined to remember always the difference between our conceptual suppositions and our genuine evidence. Conceptual clarity is to be sought and self-contradiction to be avoided not because a clear description is certain to provide access to the structures of the real (be they mental or material), but because conceptual confusion is likely to cloud our judgments about what exists and what we know. Therefore, the primary function of logic is the normative clarification of thought, and the function of clear thinking is to bring to the fore knowledge, understanding or appreciation of what we value. Abstractions are tools, not principles of the real. The following passage from Bowne’s 1899 treatise on method, Theory of Thought and Knowledge, exemplifies his outlook:

The root thought of this work is that thought is an organic activity which unfolds from within, and can never be put together mechanically from without …. Knowledge is no longer something originating outside the mind, possibly in the nerves, and passed along ready-made into the mind; it is rather something built up by the mind within itself in accordance with principles immanent in the mental nature. Nothing is nearer to us than thought, and yet nothing is harder to grasp. The reason is that spontaneous thought deals with its objects rather than with itself, and the work of reflection is difficult. (Borden Parker Bowne, Theory of Thought and Knowledge, iii-iv.)

Thus Bowne’s approach is a kind of phenomenology that is governed not by an ontologically grounded pure logic, but by a supposition that careful reflection can reveal some portion of its own origins and structures, and can be more clearly described as greater care is given to the refinement of our descriptions. However, ontological knowledge is not the result of this process any more than it is the ground; more or less useful guides for action are the most we can expect in our endeavors, and epistemology is the critical treatment of the processes by which valuable knowledge is acquired.


Regarding the limits of description and philosophical knowledge, Bowne warns against the twin pitfalls of epistemology –warnings that characterize much of American philosophy in Bowne’s time: “I have emphasized two points the knowledge of which is of great importance, if not absolutely necessary, for our intellectual salvation. The first point is the volitional and practical nature of belief. Persons living on the plane of instinct and hearsay have no intellectual difficulty here, or anywhere else; but persons entering upon the life of reflection without insight into this fact are sure to lose themselves in theoretical impotence and practical impudence. The impotence manifests itself in a paralyzing inability to believe, owing to the fancy that theoretical demonstration must precede belief. The impudence shows itself in ruling out with an airy levity the practical principles by which men and nations live, because they admit of no formal proof. These extremes of unwisdom can be escaped only by an insight into the volitional and practical nature of belief.” Hence Bowne embraces what is better known under the aegis of pragmatism as “the will to believe,” in James’ terminology, or alternately as “the scientific method of fixing belief” in C.S. Peirce’s vocabulary. Whether Bowne ought to be called a pragmatist is a matter of some debate, but that his method can be characterized as pragmatic seems very clear. James did not regard Bowne as a radical empiricist, but a case might be made that Bowne was such.

Bowne continues: “The second point … is the almost universal illusion arising from what I have called the structural fallacies of uncritical thought. Spontaneous thought is pretty sure to take itself as the double of reality. Thus arises the fallacy of the universal, the parent of a very large part of popular speculation. And when to this are added the omnipresent imposture and deceit of language, there results a great world of abstract and verbal illusion against which we cannot be too much on our guard, seeing that it is the source both of so much theoretical error and of so much practical menace and aberration.” (p. v) Here is a statement of method that is hard to distinguish from pragmatism or from process philosophy. Bowne’s consistency in adhering to these methodological principles is exemplary, and his writing itself is clever, pithy, economical and insightful. His prose bears up well to the contemporary eye.


In metaphysics Bowne was an early proponent of process philosophy. In the first edition of his Metaphysics (1882), Bowne attacked the traditional notion of “substance” and “being” and suggested that it be replaced with a notion of process. His idea of God as the “world ground” is similar to A. N. Whitehead’s idea of God in the succeeding century. This move rendered “time” and “space” as they had appeared in Kantian and Aristotleian philosophies phenomenal as opposed to either noumenal or ontological. This and other such positions of Bowne in metaphysics labeled him as an idealist, but Bowne insisted that his brand of pluralistic objective idealism was entirely consistent with the conviction of the reality of an order quite beyond our mental processes, although such a reality cannot be conceived as wholly independent, since nothing is wholly independent of anything else at the level of existence. What was required in order to provide consistent and usable descriptions in metaphysics was a central principle which provided a reliable and fruitful clue to the place we hold in the broader reality. Bowne found this “clue” in the idea of the person. Whatever else we might suppose about the nature of reality, we can be assured that it is compatible with or not entirely hostile to the personal mode of existence. In addition, it seems that a pervasive and indeed inevitable feature of all our philosophical descriptions is that they express the perspective and values of personal beings. Thus, person is a mode of relation that we may safely take as clue to the structure of objective reality and a feature of all philosophical description. Accordingly, Bowne brings his critical acumen to bear against the various “impersonalist” philosophies of his time. Absolute idealism errs by sacrificing the clear empirical plurality of persons in our experience to an impersonal Absolute. Materialism errs in reducing a personal reality to an impersonal principle which can only be abstract. Impersonalist versions of naturalism and psychologism suffer from similar errors, according to Bowne. Ultimately his claim is that philosophies that eliminate the personal principle fall into the “structural fallacies of uncritical thought” or the fallacy of the universal, what James called “the philosopher’s fallacy” and Whitehead called “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.”


This trajectory in metaphysics culminated in the expression of Bowne’s mature philosophy in his book Personalism (1908). Although Bowne’s philosophical system bore several names along the way, including “objective idealism” and “transcendental empiricism,” its final moniker was “personalism.” Whether this is a very good label can be questioned, but it has stayed with philosophy in the tradition of Bowne in subsequent generations. Personalism was an important force in mainstream philosophy until the decline of idealistic philosophies in America became a marked phenomenon in the 1930s. In theology and social ethics personalism exerted greater influence through Bowne’s student Edgar Sheffield Brightman, and Brightman’s student Martin Luther King, Jr., who was perhaps the most important social, political and ethical thinker in the personalist tradition. In the philosophy of religion personalism continues to exercise some influence in the circles that take philosophical theology seriously. The term “personalism” has gained greater currency in these circles in recent years due to the espousal of this view by Pope John Paul II. Due to the importance of this philosopher Pope it is likely that the term “personalism” will be in use for the foreseeable future, and with the same basic meaning that Bowne gave it.

Regarding the mature expression of Bowne’s philosophy in Personalism, James, upon reading it, remarked in a letter to Bowne: “It seems to me that you and I are now aiming at exactly the same end …. The common foe of us both is the dogmatist-rationalist-abstractionist. Our common desire is to redeem the concrete personal life which wells up in us from moment to moment, from fastidious (and really preposterous) dialectic contradictions, impossibilities and vetoes.” (August 17, 1908) Arguably, then, Bowne’s personalism is a kind of pragmatism that insists upon “person” in a way analogous to the way that John Dewey, for example, insists upon “organism.”

The idea that “person” is both a fundamental modality of existence and a reliable descriptive principle in philosophy supplies a needed bridge between metaphysics, method, and ethics. Accordingly, Bowne wrote extensively in moral philosophy, arguably his most important writings, in terms of subsequent impact on the world. Bowne’s ethical philosophy is characterized by its guarded meliorism; an emphasis on practicality and on learning to be circumspect about human nature and possibilities. Bowne tends to take a fairly dim view of the prospects for improving human behavior, but he is convinced that we may find exemplars of freedom well employed in our midst. He is a progressive, arguing that ethical philosophy ought to learn from its past, but exists for the sake of the present and future and must not be tied down to tradition. Freedom is a given in moral philosophy in the sense that it is implied by the very notion of personal existence. An unfree being cannot be a personal being, and a personal being cannot fail to be free in some sense. Thus, the idea of freedom is not a postulate for Bowne, but an ontological requirement of meaningful existence and a presupposition of all descriptions. The dignity and equality of all persons thus becomes part and parcel of their ontological freedom, and seeking to develop the freedom of persons is an ethical imperative beside which none other can compare. Hence, Bowne favored the equality of women and non-white races at a time when these views were controversial. He did not limit the notion of personal existence to human beings, recognizing as early as 1882 that other beings, including animals, must be described as having a personal form of existence.

However, while Bowne was an uncompromising apologist of progressive morality, it led him to disparage the ways of life of “savages” and “indians,” not because of their race or natural inferiority, but because he saw “primitive” ways of life as morally inferior to the ways of “civilized men.” Today this sort of cultural triumphalism is called "colonialism," and it does harbor many racist and sexist presuppositions. In this regard Bowne was very much a man of the Victorian age. He did not credit the idea of an ascent of man as either naturalized or divinely ordained, but he did hold without apology the idea that not all ways of life have achieved the same level of moral excellence, and some ways of life, principally "sub-European" ways, deserved our round condemnation. His model of a morally advanced life was that of city-dwelling Anglo-Europeans wherever they might be found. Yet, Bowne was anti-imperialist and regarded nationalism and even patriotism as an indication of stunted moral growth on the part of those who defended them. While he took a dim view of human nature, Bowne still believed there was reason to hope that we might become less self-destructive, and clarity of thought could only help.

In particular Bowne thought that the mode of relating in the family unit probably holds our best clues to moral progress. While the situation of the family in Bowne’s age, as in our own, was nothing to praise, Bowne argued that it was the best set of moral relations we have, and that moral progress will be achieved by the expansion of the sphere of moral concern to include the consideration of wider and wider circles of individuals, a “family of humankind” rather than a “kingdom of ends.”

Major works by Bowne

  • The Philosophy of Herbert Spencer (New York, 1874).
  • Studies in Theism (New York, 1882).
  • Metaphysics: A Study in First Principles (New York, 1882; revised ed., 1898).
  • Introduction to Psychological Theory (New York, 1886).
  • Philosophy of Theism (New York, 1887; revised edn. 1902).
  • The Principles of Ethics (New York, 1892).
  • Theory of Thought and Knowledge (New York, 1899).
  • The Christian Revelation (Cincinnati, 1898).
  • The Christian Life (Cincinnati, 1899).
  • The Atonement (Cincinnati, 1900).
  • The Immanence of God (Boston, 1905).
  • Personalism (Boston, 1908).
  • Studies in Christianity (1909).
  • A Man’s View of Woman Suffrage (Boston, 1910).
  • The Essence of Religion (Boston, 1910).
  • Kant and Spencer: A Critical Exposition (Boston, 1912).

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Selected works by Bowne

  • Bowne, Borden Parker. Methodist review 105 (3). New York: Methodist Book Concern, 1922.
  • Bowne, Borden Parker, and Warren E. Steinkraus. Representative Essays of Borden Parker Bowne. Utica, NY: Meridian Pub. Co, 1981. ISBN 0866100660
  • Bowne, Borden Parker. Kant and Spencer; A Critical Exposition. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1967.
  • Bowne, Borden Parker. Theory of Thought and Knowledge. New York: Harper & brothers, 1897.
  • Bowne, Borden Parker. Metaphysics. (Philosophy in America). New York: AMS Press, 1979. ISBN 0404590721
  • Bowne, Borden Parker. Personalism. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1908.
  • Bowne, Borden Parker. Philosophy of Theism. New York: Harper & brothers, 1887.
  • Bowne, Borden Parker. The Essence of Religion. Adelaide: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2002. ISBN 190430317X
  • Bowne, Borden Parker. The Immanence of God. New York: AMS Press, 1979. ISBN 0404590705
  • Bowne, Borden Parker. The Principles of Ethics. Philosophy in America. New York: AMS Press, 1979. ISBN 0404590748

Works by others

  • Flewelling, Ralph Tyler, and Rudolf Eucken. Personalism and the Problems of Philosophy; An Appreciation of the Work of Borden Parker Bowne. New York: The Methodist Book Concern, 1915.
  • Marshall, M. 2002. "The Role of Reason for Borden Parker Bowne." Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 38: 649-672.
  • McConnell, Francis John. Borden Parker Bowne, His Life and His Philosophy. New York: The Abingdon Press, 1929.
  • Pyle, Charles Bertram. The Philosophy of Borden Parker Bowne and Its Application to the Religious Problem. Columbus, OH: S.F Harriman, 1910.

External links

All links retrieved November 20, 2023.

General Philosophy Sources


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